It’s just not even a fair fight, and fortunately writer/director Preston Sturges knows that. Barbara Stanwyck could have poor little Henry Fonda for breakfast, and in Sturges’ blithely astringent comedy The Lady Eve, she does just that. Fonda, as hapless rich kid Charles Pike, puts up some resistance to Stanwyck, international card sharp and grifter extraordinaire Jean Harrington, but it’s really no contest — he knows he’s doomed to be won over by her charms, as the audience is, and ultimately everyone is the happier for it.
Sturges wrote for women like few other screenwriters ever have, even in our supposedly more advanced times. His heroines have a welcome tendency towards toughness, clarity of mind, sharpened tongues, devastating wit, and the ability to wear smashing evening wear without looking the least bit fragile. The remarkable Stanwyck is a fantastic creation as Harrington, able to think (and speak) circles around everybody in any given room, but still retaining the heart to fall madly for nebbishy Pike.
The story of The Lady Eve is almost too silly to synopsize, which one begins to suspect was the point — it gets out of the actors’ way. At the film’s start, Pike is leaving the Amazon (where he spent the past year researching rare snake species) and getting on an ocean liner for home. On board, he’s made instantly for a sucker — daddy Horace being a rich brewer, for one, and Pike himself being every inch a naïve egghead with few people skills — by Jean and her father and fellow grifter ‘Colonel’ Harrington. Between friendly games of cards and strolls on the deck, Jean wins her mark over, but ends up falling for him as well, much to dad’s chagrin. Once Pike finds out who Jean is, though, the romance is off, and she decides to get even.
It’s the flimsiest of shoestrings — acknowledging the real world only in a couple of lines referencing how liners have stopped crossing the Atlantic due to the war — and yet just about as fulfilling as one could ever hope a film to be. Hewing close to the battle-of-the-sexes wordplay and screwball shenanigans that he employed with similar aplomb in The Palm Beach Story, Sturges smartly hands the film over to Stanwyck, who fairly sprints away with it. Possessed of a singularly flinty charm and confidently no-nonsense femininity (it’s unfortunate that her career came several decades too early for Elmore Leonard adaptations to make use of her), Stanwyck’s Jean would initially seem to be someone for whom Fonda’s milksop Pike would barely serve as an appetizer. However, watching her curiosity about this wan and antisocial scientist blossom into love is an unexpected delight.
Almost the most impressive thing about the film is how Sturges is able to show tough-girl Jean opening herself up to romance without then having the film layer on the usual misogynistic expectation that she then lose all spine and character. The Lady Eve is as powerful a feminist statement as it is a smart comedy, and all the more so for hardly seeming to break a sweat in the process.